Low-scoring Super Bowl?

January 23, 2001 9:49 AM
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Last July, 31 teams began training camps with their sights set on playing their final game of the season, Sunday in Tampa Bay. Only the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants remain in the NFL’s annual version of "Survivor." About 7 p.m. Pacific time, one of them will have earned the Vince Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of having won Super Bowl XXXV.

Last week, I looked into the "how" and "why" Baltimore and the Giants earned a trip to Tampa. This week, let’s look at what might take place in the NFL championship game (or, as the newly-formed XFL has labeled it, "The Big Game at the End.")

This one’s very difficult to forecast. Neither team was expected to be here when the season began. In fact, neither team finished above .500 in 1999. Both have strong defenses and solid special teams but are average, at best, on offense. Baltimore’s record-setting defense allowed the fewest points ever over a 16-game regular schedule. But its offense was almost record-setting in a negative way. Back in October, the Ravens went over 20 consecutive quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Over the season, the AFC was considered clearly the stronger of the two conferences, but AFC teams won just 30-of-60 intercon-ference games, covering 32 of them (with a Push). That’s hardly indicative of domination. It actually suggests that overall the two conferences were fairly even.

Looking at the six-playoff teams from each conference, we learn AFC playoff teams won 17-of-23 games vs. NFC teams (going 16-7 ATS). NFC playoff teams won 16-of-24 games vs. the AFC (but went just 11-13 ATS). The top teams in each conference had pretty much the same straight-up record when playing inter-conference, but NFC teams clearly failed to live up to expectations, covering less than half.

Both teams play low-risk offense, emphasize ball control and limit mistakes while relying on the defense to make the key stop and create turnovers to set up the offense in favorable field position with less distance to cover to score.

Many observers consider these to be the two weakest teams to ever make the Super Bowl. Neither have appeared on Monday Night Football this season. Neither have glamour players on offense.

The storylines out of Tampa this week will focus on the long-time friendship of Giants’ owner Wellington Mara and Ravens’ owner Art Modell. There will be features on how the Ravens abandoned Cleveland, the problems faced by Raven linebacker Ray Lewis at last year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, and how this season’s Giants remind many of the "blue collar" Giants who won Super Bowls XXI and XXV.

The focus should be on the Ravens’ outstanding defensive play led by Lewis, probably the NFL’s best defensive player. Attention should be given to the rehabilitation of both quarterbacks: the Giants’ Kerry Collins and Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer (who returns to Tampa where he was vilified for several seasons by Buccaneer fans). And the potential for a low-scoring game that may be decided by special teams should be at the forefront of pre-game analysis.

As to the game itself there are many similarities in the two teams, some previously touched upon. On the surface, this should be a tight, low-scoring defensive battle favoring the UNDER, even as low as 33 or 32 1/2. During the regular season, Baltimore’s defense allowed a total of just 16 touchdowns, an average of just one per game. The Ravens also allowed opponents to attempt (not make) 19 field goals, barely over one per game. The Giants’ defense was not quite as good, but still well above average, allowing 30 touchdowns and 24 field goal attempts.

Both offenses rely much more on the run, although the Giants were slightly above the league average in passing yardage during regular season. The teams ranked 1-2 in rushing defense, with Baltimore having the better rushing offense over the season. That’s important to note since the Giants began the season with one of the top ground games in the league, rushing for an average of 187 yards per game in their first three games. Both Tiki Barber and rookie Ron Dayne saw their productivity decline over the balance of the season. The Giants ended the season ranked 11th in rushing offense, averaging just 126 yards per game.

Both teams have great momentum. Baltimore has won 10 in a row. The Giants have won seven straight. Baltimore’s path has been much more impressive, winning twice on the road and limiting Denver’s second-ranked offense and Oakland’s sixth-ranked offense to three points apiece.

The Ravens showed character in rallying from behind to win at Tennessee, defeating the league’s top ranked defense in the process. But the Ravens have hardly been impressive on offense in the playoffs, totaling just 31 first downs and 656 total yards. In fact, Tennessee outgained the Ravens by over 180 yards -- meaning the Ravens have been outgained (and also out first-downed) in the playoffs.

The Giants have not faced adversity in the playoffs. They returned the opening kickoff in their win over Philadelphia and scored on the opening drive against Minnesota before recovering the ensuing kickoff and scoring again. The Giants have never trailed in the playoffs, so they’ve never had to play from behind. Their 41-0 rout of Minnesota was impressive, but because they led 14-0 just two minutes into the game, their defense unusually aggressive against the Vikings. They might not have that luxury here since an early two TD lead is most unlikely — for either team.

This clearly shapes up as a game of field position. Both teams have great confidence in their defenses and great respect for their opponents. This suggests that neither team will want to take too many chances on offense. Rather, each would prefer to establish ball control and chew up clock.

Both teams will rely on defenses to create turnovers, where Baltimore excelled in the regular season. The Ravens recovered a league-leading 49 turnovers. The Giants forced a respectable 31 turnovers, but that edge of more than a turnover per game is a major edge for Baltimore.

Both teams were very good at protecting the football. Baltimore lost just 26 turnovers all season. The Giants were charitable just 24 times.

Baltimore has made that "one big play" in virtually every game. Most often, the defense provided that play; other times, it was their special teams. But against Oakland, the offense and Shannon Sharpe came up big. Baltimore’s consistent ability to make that big play and the ability to win twice on the road in the playoffs may be just enough of an indicator that they’ll win this game.

It’s hard to see many scoring opportunities for either team. Baltimore’s defense has excelled against offenses essentially equal to the Giants’ offense. It may take just 14 to 17 points to win this game, but the nod goes to Baltimore based on their defense, their season-long edge in rushing game, and their playoff performances in which they shut down three very good teams, each better than the Giants.

The old adage says defense wins championships. This Super Bowl matches a very good New York Giants’ defense against an outstanding Baltimore Ravens’ defense. And it’s a Baltimore defense that continually makes big plays.

Baltimore should capture Super Bowl XXXV with a 17-12 victory, meaning the UNDER is also the preferred play. Were this a regular season game played on a typical Sunday, it wouldn’t merit a recommendation for either the side or the total. But this is the Super Bowl, and since there appears to be a national edict that we must have action on the game, the slight preference is for BALTIMORE and the UNDER.

In looking at the numerous propositions available on the game it is important to note that there are major types of prop plays. The first is a head-to-head matchup, such as which QB will have more total yards or more completions; or whether the total number of sacks will be over or under a specified number.

The other type of proposition is one that has more than two possible outcomes, such as the player who will score the first TD; the margin of victory by the winning team; or the combination of the first-half result with the total-game result. These propositions offer more attractive odds since there are several possible outcomes, while the head-to- head matchups are priced more along the lines of a fairly competitive baseball game where the favored part of the proposition requires the bettor to lay around -160 and the underdog player gets +130 or +140.

The preference is for the head-to-head matchups, since only two possible outcomes are possible and a well thought-out analysis of how the game might unfold can be profitable in quite a number of propositions. A secondary preference is to look for the plus prices. As an example, at one sports book the proposition for which team would score first had the Giants at +110. In such a competitively priced game, it seems as though neither team should be a significant favorite over the other to the extent that one is priced as an underdog. The Giants have already scored first in both of their playoff wins. The thought is that this proposition is essentially a toss-up.

Another way to approach propositions is to pair them off. Look at playing whether each quarterback’s first pass will be complete or incomplete. Several books have this priced with "complete" as the solid favorite for both Collins and Dilfer. Playing the "incomplete" at a plus price for each means you only need one of them to hit for a profit. Both quarterbacks are likely to face considerable pressure and might have a case of nerves early in the game. That suggests the likelihood of both passers completing their first passes is much less than one or both of them will throw incompletions initially.

Propositions concerning the last team to score in the first half, the team making the most field goals, and similarly worded props should be approached by looking to play on the underdog half of the prop due to the competitively priced nature of this game. Recall that the line opened with Baltimore a 1-point favorite. The public has driven the line up to 3. If this game featured one team as perhaps a touchdown or greater favorite, it might be easier to make a case for favoring that team in more of the propositions involving scoring or having things happen first.

Finally there are the inter-sport propositions that match up an event from the Super Bowl against an event from the NBA, European soccer, the NHL, etc. Again, some astute analysis can provide an edge in making wagers on these "fun" propositions. Surely among the hundreds of propositions being offered around Las Vegas, even the most cynical person can find something to his or her liking.

Above all, remember that in the eyes of the most serious, professional bettors the Super Bowl is just another game, one that often offers little wagering value because the line is strong and heavily influenced by "public" money. Recall that in just the last five seasons, two Super Bowls have ended in point-spread pushes.

Have fun. Enjoy the game.